Hundreds of makerspaces exist all over the world. While they come in all shapes and sizes, and include many different types of tools and capabilities, all makerspaces serve one purpose: providing space for people to grow and share knowledge, access tools, and collaborate.
Read on to learn what makes a makerspace tick, who should create one, and why they’re ripe venues for community enrichment, entrepreneurship, and applications for automation and direct digital manufacturing (DDM).
Watch our recorded webinar, Versatile Production: Print Farms, Microfactories, and Makerspaces, to hear more about two other types spaces that support DDM: print farms and microfactories.
What’s in a Makerspace?
At their core, makerspaces are areas where people share tools and experience to build projects. On a higher level, they’re evidence of the fast-growing “sharing economy,” and have the potential to significantly impact a community’s knowledge and capacity.
Makerspaces are a great way for individuals to learn new skills and help their community while starting a new business. They’re also an opportunity for educational institutions to augment and add value to existing programs and physical space, and for companies or local governments to attract and create innovation in their area.
The basic ingredients of a makerspace include:
- Tools and materials to make things.
- Knowledgeable educators to teach people.
- Processes to make sure everything fits together smoothly.
- Space for classrooms and community events (consider online classes as well!).
- A budget for space rental, tool replacement and repair, materials, and staffing.
- Advertising to drive attendance (create a website and promote on social platforms like meetup.com).
- A revenue model (can include subscription-based, pay-per-space, and funding/resources from an associated larger school, government entity, or institution).
Choosing a Well-Balanced Suite of Tools
The high/low approach is an effective way to choose tools to include in your makerspace. This involves balancing the space with advanced tools (to expand capability) and simple tools (to provide workspace flexibility).
Low-tech machines are useful for a lot of tasks, and can even contribute to training. For instance, a saw can be very multi-purpose and work with a variety of materials, while still being inexpensive. Automated tools aid in manufacturing complex objects, like a laser cut or 3D printed enclosure for a Raspberry Pi. However, keep in mind that a makerspace is not the right place for manufacturing many parts or objects, unless it’s set up to also operate as a microfactory.
When choosing tools for your space, consider what materials you would like to work with. Wood, metal, plastic, fabric, and circuitry are all standard materials used in makerspaces. Some tools can be multipurpose; for instance, a mallet can be used for both wood and metal. Others will be more specific, such as a hole punch or metal saw. However, choosing which materials you would like to specialize in can help you choose what tools to buy. Remember that you can easily expand your material capabilities by going low-tech at first, then building up to automated machines later. Here’s a list of tools we recommend for getting started:
Low-Tech, Manual Tools
- Soldering station: Include some basic soldering kits and supplies. These are valuable for any digital projects a student might want to work on, like robotics.
- A drill press and bandsaw: Useful for a huge variety of projects. If you want to go bigger (e.g., furniture), consider a table saw. A belt sander can be useful, too.
- Hand tools: Saws, hammers, wrenches, sanding blocks, hot glue guns, etc. Your basic craftsman's tool chest.
- Measuring devices: Rulers, calipers, measuring tape, etc.
- Sewing machines: For fabric projects and can be relatively inexpensive.
Automated, Digital Tools
- 3D printers: The cornerstone of many modern makerspaces, they’re multi-purpose, easy to use, and great for attracting visitors/members.
- Milling or CNC machine: For very complex projects or working with metal. Can be costly.
- Laser cutter: Costly, but very popular and extremely versatile.
Depending on your space, consider purchasing multiple 3D printers. Multiple printers means less workflow disruption and more availability and, if one printer has a problem, it won’t shut down the space’s whole printing operation. A high/low approach works here, too: including one or more stereolithography (SLA) machines (for functional prototypes and smooth surface finish) and one or more fused deposition modeling (FDM) machines (for low-cost, versatile production) provides a very wide range of 3D printing capabilities.
Read our white paper for tips on setting up areas for multiple 3D printers.
Keep in mind that you’ll need training classes and workspace rules to prevent untrained users from working with tools, plus a budget for tool repair and replacement and materials.
Finding the Right Staff
Volunteers are the lifeblood of makerspaces, but you’ll also need paid staff. Overall, you’ll want people who are good with their hands, excited to work on a project (whatever it is), able to self-diagnose problems and work relatively independently, comfortable adhering to a relatively loose structure, and, bonus, experienced with any manufacturing process or building and design.
In addition to volunteers, a set number of paid individuals for running the shop should include:
- Tool experts to run the shop, lockout, teach, etc.
- Skill experts to teach classes and workshops
- Depending on your location, people to interact with the public, help run orders, etc.
It’s very helpful to have a designated “master” for each toolset (e.g., CNC, 3D printing, etc.) to manage the machines and make sure they’re well taken care of. Masters can also make sure the machines get replacement parts, either by ordering themselves or passing requests through the chain.
Webinar: Three Setups for Versatile Production
Makerspaces are just one kind of space for versatile production. Watch our webinar for a walkthrough of the distinction between three types of setups, and how you can build your own:
- Microfactories: localized spaces with a small footprint that focus on providing a variety of fabrication services for a small number of customers.
- Print farms: cells of multiple 3D printers, focused mostly on 3D printing fabrication.
- Makerspaces: collaborative community spaces, often based on a class or membership model, offering various fabrication tools and training for anyone to use them.